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Drink Your Words

The Mixologist Has Nine Lives

March 28, 2022

Story: Danny Chau

art: Mallory Heyer

Drink Your Words

The Mixologist Has Nine Lives

March 28, 2022

Story: Danny Chau

art: Mallory Heyer

At once modern and antiquated, humorous and self-serious, the term’s contradictions form the very DNA of bartending.

It’s impossible to describe the most memorable cocktail I’ve ever enjoyed without feeling a twinge of embarrassment. The New Order, as it was called, was a pandan-infused milk punch served at Duello, the ill-fated Los Angeles bar backed by Joe Russo, half of the Hollywood duo that directed Arrested Development. The drink was created by Kaiko Tulloch, an Edinburgh bartender who developed the recipe with inspiration from Los Angeles’ Arts District. It took up to three days to steep and clarify, and arrived tableside shrouded by a glass cloche, hotboxing palo santo smoke to accentuate the qualities of the mezcal. There is a certain plushness in texture inherent to the milk punch technique, to which the unique softening properties of pandan become a force multiplier. The New Order drank like sinking into memory foam. It was a great drink, the kind one might chalk up to the curious wonders of “mixology,” with only a shred of irony.

But here’s the rub with evoking mixology or mixologists: The moments of brilliance and artistry are so often chased with deprecating insecurity, whether self-imposed or spawned by the judgment of others. The label has led nine lives over the years, each one, in a way, proof of its various contradictions.

The acoustics of the word are almost nauseatingly modern; it would not be a shock if the mixologist had been born behind the counter of a “gastropub,” just one of the “elevated,” status-obsessed portmanteaus of the 1990s. And yet, the birth of the mixologist came nearly a century and a half earlier, five years before the start of the American Civil War. To proclaim oneself a mixologist is to erect a monument to one’s own self-seriousness, and yet, the word itself was a ridiculous fabrication in an 1856 humor column.

The mixologist is, quite literally, a joke. 

Penning a story for Knickerbocker Magazine, Charles G. Leland wrote from the perspective of a narrator overhearing a pompous gentleman speaking in exaggerated, embellished fashion, deeming the hotel’s barman a “mixologist of tipulars.” As drinks laureate David Wondrich clarified in an episode of the “Life Behind Bars” podcast, that characterization “is Fancy American for somebody who mixes tipples, or a bartender.”  

“All these American newspapers read that magazine and cut out that little piece because everyone thought it was really funny,” Wondrich continued. “But you fast-forward a couple of generations and you’re looking in the wanted ads and you see ‘Bartender Wanted: Must be good mixologist.’ It becomes something because it stood for that extra part of bartending that the Romans didn’t have—the fine art of mixing drinks.”

Since the advent of the word, the evolution of the mixologist has hinged on the balance between awe and revulsion that the label inspires.

By the end of the 19th century and heading into the early years of the 20th, “mixologist” was acknowledged as part of the American lexicon—a much-needed synonym for an occupation that didn’t have one. But Prohibition changed things; the term lay largely dormant for the decades during and following, appearing every once in a while in advertisements for home bar setups, and eventually settling back into its status as a niche wisecrack.

“A good way to discover the paucity of bartenders’ neologistic powers is to ask yourself what they call themselves,” wrote the American curmudgeon-scholar H.L. Mencken, in 1948. “Have they ever invented a fancy name comparable to the mortician of the undertakers, the realtor of the real-estate jobbers, the ecdysiast of the strip teasers, or the cosmetologist of the beauty shop gals? Alas, they have not, and it seems very unlikely that they ever will. Even so silly a term as mixologist was devised not by a practicing bartender but by some forgotten journalist. … He intended it sportively and it has remained on that level ever since.”

A Matter of Identity

The modern reclamation of “mixologist” can be directly attributed to Dale DeGroff, who, in the 1980s, happened upon the term while researching 19th-century bartending for his bar program at the legendary Rainbow Room. He considered the word befitting of the grandeur and showmanship he hoped the bar would embody. “I called myself a master mixologist because I wanted notoriety from the press,” DeGroff told Eater in 2011. “And I got it.”

Since the advent of the word, the evolution of the mixologist has hinged on the balance between awe and revulsion that the label inspires. Those two poles of sentiment have twisted and vined across eras, forming the double helix of mixology’s DNA. 

The cocktail renaissance of the aughts was a fount of limitless possibility; a sense of legitimacy and adjacency to other realms of artistry were suddenly being realized and acted upon. Mixologists inspired by frontiering chefs like Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal saw potential in unconventional methods of presentation and execution. Within that flash-bang of new possibilities was the birth of molecular mixology. For a hot second, the magic of cocktails was to be experienced primarily from a visual modality—by way of foams, agar-agar orbs, xanthan gum suspensions and the like—rather than a gustatory one. 

“When I was a younger bartender in Europe making other people’s drinks, they were so out there,” said Iain McPherson, co-owner of Edinburgh’s Panda & Sons, who started bartending in 2007. “Maybe the word ‘interesting’ as opposed to ‘delicious.’”

When people roll their eyes at “mixologist,” in their mind’s eye is probably something like Essence, the molecular mixology bar in an episode of Parks and Recreation, where Bud Lights are consumed in cotton candy form, and a dram of Scotch is applied as a topical hand cream. Today’s understanding of “mixologist” still carries secondhand embarrassment from a time nearly two decades in the rearview. 

A rejection of the pretentiousness soon followed, tipping the scales of mixology all the way to the other end, stripping the affect in favor of the historic grounds DeGroff had unearthed in the ’80s. But overcorrections eventually find their way back toward acceptable grounds. While the “molecular” label is to remain in its cryo chamber until it hits its retro-chic phase 50 years from now, experimentation with scientific processes has become standard practice for some of the world’s best bars. “I was fascinated by [molecular mixology]. I tried a lot of the techniques I could with the tools I had at the time during the big craze of it,” said McPherson, who recently pioneered the concept of “switching.” “I think it’s come back, and it’s coming back in a better, more approachable way.” 

Finding novelty and innovation in the not-so-novel seems par for the course. “By 1920, just about every technique and major ingredient known to modern mixology was in play,” Wondrich wrote in Imbibe!, a definitive tribute to Jerry Thomas and the classics of American bartending. In barcraft, past and future are often indistinguishable. It’s the forward and backward progressions of time, working in concert, that hold together the mixologist’s DNA—that balance of awe and revulsion—to begin with. (“Mixology,” even in all its loaded, postmodernist infamy, predates the concept of retrofuturism by a century.)   

In an industry where respect and admiration don’t always come unconditionally from the outside world, how a person working a bar chooses to identify can be its own point of pride. The term “mixologist” has always been pretentious, but the degrees can vary over time, and as Mencken pointed out in writings nearly three-quarters of a century ago, a pretentious title hasn’t been a dealbreaker for plenty of other professions. Bartender or Mixologist is an eternal question of debate because it has to be. 

“I think it’s a healthy debate; I don’t really want to get beyond it,” Wondrich said. “For the fancy people, it’s good to be reminded that you might want to bring it down to earth a little bit. And then for the other people, it’s good to be reminded not to be so lazy and incurious, and maybe learn how to mix a drink.”

Eventually, the good ones realize they can be both.

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